Reflections on an Argument
Remember who the enemy is
Bill and I wrote to one another after our interview, which I have published below today’s newsletter, with his permission. Please note as personal correspondences the arguments made were not meticulously documented as they would have been if written for a wider audience.
Last week, I interviewed Bill Rees about the state of the crisis we find ourselves in and where we can and should go from here. Despite having very similar worldviews, Bill and I found ourselves, at times, going head to head on certain points, with me challenging sweeping statements about the nature of humankind, such as our drive to use up all available resources and occupy all available habitat. For the first time on Planet: Critical, these challenges incurred a heated rather than deliberative discussion.
I want to take today’s newsletter to reflect on that discussion and its heated nature. I’m happy to report, for those who haven’t listened, that our conversation ended peaceably, finding common ground with one another. Yet, I remained surprised at the turns we took before arriving there. Why is it, despite fundamentally agreeing on the bigger picture, did Bill and I find ourselves at odds?
Even as I write that, the ‘why’ becomes almost uninteresting. Bill has had a long and successful career studying ecological overshoot and human ecology, and has been campaigning for years to draw attention to the fact we are destroying our environment. As he says during the interview, the progress made is insufficient and our global human systems face collapse. I cannot begin to fathom the frustration scientists feel in the face of critical research and knowledge being ignored, and can empathise with the position that we are, in fact, doomed. Perhaps we are. Only time will tell.
However, how do we find common ground when communication breaks down? This becomes the interesting question, the most vital question, for if we cannot speak to one another despite shared epistemological footing, we are unlikely to communicate effectively to those who stand tall on the other side of the camp: those who campaign for green growth with little to no understanding of material limits (or even physics); those who are patriotic only to free market capitalism; those whose prejudices colour exploitation as opportunity. Bill calls these people “the mainstream”, and whilst we debated the utility of that word towards the end of the episode, certainly most of those who wield power, and who thus impact the dictates of the mainstream disproportionately, fall into one if not all of these categories. We must learn to speak to them. Before that, though, we must learn to speak to one another.
Armed with knowledge about what ecological overshoot means, speaking to one who seems to denigrate scientific consensus in the name of continuing business as usual is at best frustrating and at worst terrifying. When one understands we are talking about the wellbeing of billions of people and the majority of the non-human world, those who campaign against that wellbeing by way of allowing the market to run wild in the hope of finding solutions seem threatening. They are, but they are equally acted upon by a globalised system, pulling levers by compulsion rather than desire. Thus, we must find ways to speak to that compulsion instead of buying into narratives of evil geniuses and absolute powers. Don’t get me wrong, I despise the actions of actors such as Bezos as much as the next person, but I must parse his doings from his person if ever I have the opportunity to sit down with him and talk. We are all victims of this grotesque, self-perpetuating system of economic avarice. Even the billionaires are unhappy, even they are acted upon. They deserve less sympathy than those they enslave in wage labour, but runaway capitalism makes the rules, not them. Rewriting them will demand a collective effort. Disempowering individuals of the absolute illusion of their power only helps to unmask the real enemy: the system dynamics of a global economic force encoded with expansion, exploitation and profit.
I am surprised to find myself writing such things recently. A quick read through my writings from past years would reveal I once thought power belonged to individuals, and whilst I maintain we suffer at the hands of a global elite, I now understand the nature of their status to be a symptom of its position within a much wider force. We have two options: build bridges or grab pitchforks. I cannot say which is more effective. I can say we are running out of time to attempt the first.
Most of us on the Left are aware of its tendency to self-mutilate, to seek traitors instead of recruits. Recently, I was having a conversation on this very topic with someone and found myself countering their analysis with an emotional plea: It’s because we care. We care so much, and there is so much to care for, and it causes anguish, when one cares, to see others act without care, to see suffering and injustice and destruction. We can do better than this, we feel in our hearts; somehow, such intuition becomes reason for self-flagellation, and we disintegrate. Perhaps, too, we turn on each other knowing we will be heard because we care. We dive into battle, for our opponent may well lay down their arms because the clash happens on common ground. Perhaps. Certainly, isn’t it less frightening than facing an enemy who seems to care so little they will simply walk away? Who does not see the value in that for which we fight?
It is a beautiful thing to care, it is a gift which only grows with sharing; its nature is abundant. Let that abundance turn battlefields into meadows and weapons into questions. We must learn to have a hearth, an invitation which acknowledges the warmth of our commonality; a warmth to live by the day fossil fuels stop.
© Rachel Donald
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Hi, Rachel -
I really appreciated the opportunity to speak with you today and apologize for being redundant (not bringing anything new to the table) or seeming to talk down to you.
It took me a while to 'get' that while I was focusing on the "why is the world in crisis" first part of your first question, you were mostly interested in solutions, the "what can we do about it" or second half of that question).
While I have written quite a lot about the "what we can do" I am usually dismissed as too radical or as being politically out-to-lunch. In response, I have reverted to trying to get people to understand how serious the situation is (that's what I subjected you to) and to accept that only radical, politically infeasible solutions actually have a chance of 'saving modern civilization' (assuming that is a worthwhile goal). I put it the conundrum this way: The ecologically necessary is politically infeasible, but the politically feasible is ecologically ineffective if not castastrophic.
Frankly, despite the many hopeful lifeboats being floated in communities around the world, I think that the 'human enterprise' is going to crash in the next few decades (taking most of the lifeboats with it), and that millions (billions?) of people will suffer unnecessarily because of the blindness resulting from the disconnect between mainstream narratives and biophysical reality.
I have just completed a draft of my current summary of the situation (attached). Comments welcome, but please don't share this around for now.
Thanks very much for your email, I appreciate it. Each episode is accompanied by a newsletter and I wrote it directly after we spoke, choosing to reflect on why conversations can break down between people who agree and, importantly, care. I've pasted it for you to read ahead of time.
I very much enjoyed your article, particularly the sections on maximum power and second law. It is surprising and frustrating that humankind believes it can circumnavigate laws of physics, and I think about this in particular to the fallacy of net zero, with my tagline being: Physics doesn't fall for accounting tricks.
I, like you, think the most likely event is a crashing end to the global system. In response, some colleagues and I refer to "composting" the system. This helps with the grief.
Hi again, Rachel -
I am really impressed that you could compose so coherent an essay so quickly after our discussion. You are brilliant.
I too have been reflecting a lot on the course of events during that session. I wish we had had some sort of pre- interview discussion to clarify meaning, terminology and perhaps a few other things. It might have produced a more powerful convergence of views.
That said, one gets very little out of discussions in which there is no friction or disagreement and therefore no subsequent reflection or learning. I used to tell my students that sharp disagreement was always a learning experience, an opportunity first to reassess one's own position and second, to learn something new from 'the opposition.' People cannot grow without being challenged or outright failure from time to time.
I wonder how much of our going "head to head" resulted from viewing the same raging beast through different cracks in the fence or at least from overemphasizing certain aspects at the expense of others. You take great courage from the hundreds of local groups and community organizations that are striving to break from the pathological culture that surges around us. I am more focused on that pathological culture itself, what I called "the mainstream". But that doesn't mean I am unaware of the local efforts at real change (I called them life-boats) or, as your newsletter draft makes clear, that you ignore the mainstream.
So, where the difference? First, from an evolutionary perspective, there is always diversity in any large population. Qualities and characteristic possessed by certain individuals will be favoured in some environments or under particular circumstances; other characteristics altogether will be advantageous when circumstances change. Without such population diversity, natural selection could not work. Point: we should expect--and relish--significant diversity in any population, including populations of H. sapiens.
In certain circumstance, I would unreservedly celebrate the floating of cultural life-boats; I would see each as an experiment in novelty some of which would be better adapted to changing environmental conditions than the mothership (i.e., the dominant mainstream). In fact, there are no doubt numerous superior variants 'out there' to be encouraged and admired. I suspect that is the position you assume.
And I don't disagree. The difference -- and why I bristled -- is that through my crack in the fence, these lifeboats are on the fringes, are completely marginalized by the mainstream and even dependent for most material resources on the continuing functioning of the mainstream. In short, I think, (and I may be wrong) that we shouldn't place too much emphasis on, or confidence in, or romanticize the lifeboats as potential alternatives to today's global culture.
Since you have read my latest essay you will see that, from my perspective, the dominant MTI culture so overwhelms the life-boats that if the former goes down it will take the latter with it. Moreover, MTI societies have so diminished the ecosphere that it will be extremely unlikely that a reasonably advanced civilization can reemerge from the residue. I suspect (and this assumes we avoid a nuclear free for all) that the sub-groups best equipped to survive the coming 'great simplification' are those already living close to the land, the remaining groups of hunter-gatherers who have long been adapted to the ecosystems they have helped (consciously or otherwise) to create. This does not include hopeful life-boats launched from the floundering mainstream.
Which brings us to indigenous cultures. I’m not even sure what this term (should) mean. Are Brits not indigenous to Britain? Germans to Germany? The Japanese to Japan? What’s so special about indigeneity? We (the dominant mainstream or MTI) reserve the term to mean peoples that occupied a territory before we colonized them but surely that’s a bit restrictive. Patronizing, even.
In any case, we tend to romanticize so-called indigenous peoples, in part because they live in harmony with their ecosystems. But this is arguably a misperception on at least two grounds: first, many indigenous people simply haven’t developed the technology that would enable them to expand and deplete (and when they get it, they often do); second, they have already greatly modified their habitats in the ancient past, but subsequently developed cultural norms that enabled them to ‘adapt’ harmoniously with their (remnant) ecosystem.
This latter is what we see and admire, but the people involved are still ‘modern’ H. sapiens with the same diversity of innate behavioural tendencies and predispositions as the rest of us (though arguably in different proportion compared to other societies that have lived for millennia in different types of habitat). The expansionist propensities I raised have always been essential for survival—they have been ‘selected for’. Human groups that were less able or less competitive were ‘selected out’ by hostile conditions or eliminated by other human groups. (for example, H. sapiens sapiens likely had a role in competitively displacing and extinguishing H. sapiens neanderthalensis, aided by introduced diseases to which the latter were not adapted.)
In short, by their physical nature and metabolic requirements, the insertion of even ‘primitive’ H. sapiens into any ecosystem or habitat will dramatically alter its structure and species diversity. We are archetypal ‘patch disturbers.’ There will often be local extinctions of competing species. It cannot be any other way.
Of course, human groups can learn and adopt cooperative behavours to manage local resources upon which their survival depends (Elinor Ostrom received a Nobel for her work on cooperation and ‘the commons’). This is an adaptive behaviour too.
Regrettably, capitalism, globalization and trade has destroyed the conditions in which such customs emerge and survive. These ‘modern’ forces provide the ever-growing numbers of people with money and power unlimited access to remaining pockets of essential resources everywhere on Earth – that’s what colonialism is all about. They no longer perceive themselves to be dependent on the integrity of their local ecosystems so the latter are depleted or at least mismanaged. Having overwhelmed their home habitats (e.g., Europe requires three times its domestic biocapacity to survive) the wealthy, and wealthy nations, can continue to grow and prosper (temporarily) at the expense of other people and their own future. In fact, our ecological footprint work shows that generalized trade has enabled 80% of the world’s people to exceed their local carrying capacities and become dependent on food/resources imported from elsewhere. Of course, ‘elsewhere’ is then also degraded, depleted and polluted in the process.
This is why the whole global community is in overshoot, hitting limits to growth simultaneously, while the elites that command mainstream governments and economies remain blinded by their wealth to the emerging reality.
This is why I think the lifeboats we discussed—and which should be celebrated—are also in grave danger. If those of us relegated to the fringe cannot turn the mainstream, the mainstream will sink us.
All good cheer,
Thank you for your kind words.
I truly empathise with your position, as my own fluctuates on a spectrum of understanding, hope and defiance. I do not worry for the fate of humanity—an impossible anxiety to shoulder—but seek to highlight where and how suffering may be alleviated. Those of us in my generation who are wading into this fight have not yet suffered the dread of incessant cannibalisation in the maw of the mainstream, yet, I am aware we are having the same conversations activists, hippies and scientists were having in the sixties and seventies. I fear only romanticising this moment as the social tipping point we have all been waiting for, well aware that such tipping points reveal themselves often in history, only to be flattened. I have a friend who speaks of using story as a tool with which to create a crash pad for the inevitable collapse, in order to recuperate and repurpose what we can.
Despite my knowledge, I struggle to grasp what lies ahead. Yesterday, I sat on a train and imagined it suddenly stopping, imagining the people around me panicking as the unexpected happened, and imagined the realisation that the cracks had finally rent apart the fossil-fuelled fabric we hold together with. It hit me, then, that perhaps I would be better equipped to understand what was happening at that moment—and yet not equipped enough to avoid that moment. Everything crumbles, and when the ground gives way beneath my feet I will be next to those who had no idea it was crumbling at all; on a train, perhaps, or in a city, understanding doing little to ease the inevitable panic, aware of the foolishness that sent me to the edge time and time again, only for the world to open up and the real to rush forth, breaking through the absurdity we have cloaked ourselves with.
With your permission, I would like to publish the text of your email below along with my newsletter. Would that be all right?
My best wishes,
Ah, Rachel -
So much anxiety and pain for the world!
I duplicated your train experience at a conference in Shanghai, a city of maybe 28 million. I was actually speaking, in part, about the dependence of urban civilization on fossil fuels for everything -- food, potable water, waste disposal, construction, maintenance, all material resources, virtually all urban services, etc. Typical cities have food for only 2-3 days and in the absence of diesel-powered truck, bunker-fueled ships and kerosene-fueled aircraft would quickly founder.
Most people -- including that that notorious 'mainstream' of which I speak -- are unaware of this essential fossil fuel/transportation pipeline, or simply assume it will continue working, or that hope there will be a seamless transition to electrical everything. (Transportation is one of the most difficult areas to electrify and this is unlikely to happen on a climate friendly timeline--if at all)
Then it dawned on me to ask, seriously, what would transpire if Shanghai, a single city with more people than all of Australia, were cut off from the rest of the world or simply if it had to abandon fossil fuels virtually instantaneously? What about Tokyo with almost the population of Canada? Or even London with 'only 9.5 million people?
There would certainly be panic, riots and a mass migration to the countryside (overwhelming any lifeboats that had managed to drop anchor?). "There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy" (A. H. Lewis, 1906).
There simply isn't sufficient land-base to support the urban millions, many in panic, mostly disorganized, and without the most basic of survival skills (and most of whom are provisioned at great distance, even from other continents.) As I thought more about this, "Everything crumbled, and the ground gave way beneath my feet." I acquired an abiding fear for urban civilization, including the life-boats, most of which would be sucked down in the whirlpool vortex of the sinking mother ship. Stimulated by that thought experiment, I subsequently wrote an article called "Why Cities Won't Survive the 21st Century".
All of which is to say, we are actually in the same (life)boat though perhaps looking in somewhat different directions.
In that spirit you can certainly publish my previous note along with your reflections, explaining that it was a personal communication and that I would have meticulously documented my argument had I intended it for a wider audience.
Rachel, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you, to learn what you are about, and for the stimulus to re-examine some of my own fears and beliefs. Very much appreciated!
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